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Inland Empire

Teenagers to Go on Trial in Girl's Slaying

Police say the Highland high school student was lured to Little Sand Canyon and killed. People are asking how they can better deal with troubled youths.

May 05, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

It had been raining for nearly a solid week a year ago last month when a hiker made his way through San Bernardino's secluded Little Sand Canyon, stopping at an abandoned 50-foot well to dispose of his burned-down cigarette.

The hiker peered downward into darkness. Because of the rains, the well water had risen much closer to the surface. As he looked into the well, he saw the partially-clothed floating body of a blond 16-year-old girl named Christy McKendall, who had been reported missing five days earlier.

The discovery hit McKendall's hometown of Highland hard. But the mourning gave way to disbelief a few days later when police arrested three local teenagers. Authorities allege that the suspects lured McKendall to the mountains, where she was beaten on the head and dumped down the well.

In the last year, one of the teens pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder. The two others pleaded not guilty to murder charges and will stand trial this summer.

The killing has touched a nerve in San Bernardino County, leading to discussions about how to better deal with troubled children.

"There's a lot of murder cases that come through this office. This one gets you because it's just so senseless," said Karen Bell, a San Bernardino County chief deputy district attorney in the juvenile department. "This one, no matter how you look at it, you can't get an answer that satisfies the biggest question. You just keep asking yourself, why? Why?"

*

On the afternoon of April 2, McKendall, a student at San Gorgonio High School, told her mother she was headed to play video games, authorities said. McKendall walked through the security gate of her Victoria Village apartment complex with 18-year-old Jonathan Lee Stephens, apartment-complex resident Joshua Curnutte, then 15, and a 14-year-old boy, police said.

But the four were not headed to an arcade. They were instead bound for a desolate area more than two miles away, to see some marijuana plants growing in the hills near Stephens' home, according to police. After the hike up to Little Sand Canyon, McKendall and the boys began some horseplay, including a game of "pass out," with Stephens pressing on McKendall's neck and causing her to temporarily lose consciousness, police said.

In an interview he gave to San Bernardino police, Curnutte said Stephens, after tickling and playing with McKendall, bashed her in the head with a eucalyptus tree branch and a large rock. Curnutte also said in the interview that Stephens had sex with McKendall's dead body. Investigators refused to confirm that, and Stephens denies he had sex with McKendall.

McKendall's body was dumped down the well. She died as a result of a crushed skull and several facial fractures.

Police initially treated McKendall's disappearance as a missing-persons case.

When the hiker discovered her body, sheriff's deputies swarmed around the apartment complex and ultimately arrested the three. Stephens and Curnutte were charged with murder. They are being tried as adults, and their trial is to begin June 23.

The 14-year-old pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder for helping to hide McKendall's body and has been sentenced to three years in the California Youth Authority.

Authorities have not outlined what they believe was Curnutte's role, but said he did not stop what was happening and might have encouraged it.

Curnutte has denied the charges; his attorney could not be reached for comment.

The case has received so much publicity that San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Bob N. Krug is considering whether the trial should be moved to another community. A hearing is scheduled for May 29.

Mary Wadi, the longtime Victoria Village apartment manager, saw McKendall leaving the complex the day of her disappearance. She alerted the San Bernardino County sheriff's department, worried about what the girl might be doing with the three teenagers.

"I should've stopped Christy right there at the gate. That will always haunt me," Wadi said in an interview.

Christy's mother, Connie McKendall, also replays in her mind the last time she saw her daughter.

"I know my daughter, and I know she wasn't smoking pot with those kids," she said. "That day, she asked to go play video games for an hour. I didn't like the looks of those boys, but they were her friends. Christy was trusting of people. I don't know, maybe I should have told her not to trust people."

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